No good options left for county – Kathy Lambert visits Issaquah

As the political jostling continues over how to preserve funding for county police, human services and public safety programs, King County Councilor Kathy Lambert met with Issaquah business and community leaders Tuesday morning to give her take on how best to address the county's desperate financial situation.

As the political jostling continues over how to preserve funding for county police, human services and public safety programs, King County Councilor Kathy Lambert met with Issaquah business and community leaders Tuesday morning to give her take on how best to address the county’s desperate financial situation.

Among the ideas she presented to the breakfast meeting of the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce at the Tutta Bella pizza restaurant on Gilman Boulevard was the need to combat the influence of labor unions, which she said were making it very difficult to turn the county around financially.

Republican Lambert also called for the repeal of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, to allow King County Councilmembers to hold discussions in private. She said this would be an important step toward encouraging government to run more like private business.

“What business do you know where the partners can’t talk to each other?” she said. “I think that’s kind of a silly law.”

But the main reason for Lambert’s visit to her constituency was to gather support for a proposal she said would be a revenue neutral option to secure funding for criminal justice services — including the Sheriff’s Office, the county prosecutor’s office and courts — as the county works to overcome a $60 million deficit.

Criminal justice, which includes the Sheriff’s Office but also the County Prosecutor’s Office, public defenders, jails and courts, accounts for 76 percent of the county’s general fund. This has risen from 61 percent 10 years ago due mainly to cuts in the general fund and a need to keep criminal justice spending stable.

Lambert, and fellow Republican Reagan Dunn, earlier this month opposed and blocked a proposal backed by the Democratic members of the council to raise sales taxes by .2 percent to ensure funding for criminal and safety services without additional cuts to an already decimated public system. The increase would have cost the average resident an additional $40 per year, and brought in $47 million in revenue.

Lambert and Dunn are instead proposing a similar increase in sales tax, to be offset with cuts to the King County Flood Control District, the maintenance of rural roads, the county’s automated fingerprint identification system, and a reduction in the Parks Expansion Levy.

The proposed plan would result in a tax cut of eight dollars for the average household in 2011 and an increase of six dollars per year after that. With a three-year sunset, the total cost for the average household would be four dollars through 2013.

They say the proposal would not increase the tax burden on residents, while fulfilling the county’s obligation to bring combined local tax levies below the statutory state cap of $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed value.

On Tuesday Lambert said the county had historically maintained a cushion between its collection rates and the state mandated maximum rate. However the drop in home prices meant that although the total amount they were collecting remained fairly constant, the rate per $1,000 of assessed value went up.

“The rates have gone up, and they’ve eaten through our cushion,” she said.

Lambert said this meant the county had no other option than to reduce the amount being paid into the junior taxing districts – a taxing district other than a city, county or state. These will be hard decisions too. In King County’s case, that means choosing between three hospital districts, two parks districts, a cemetery district, and the flood control district.

Funding for the King County Flood Control District, which is of particular importance to the residents and businesses of Issaquah as much of the valley floor is located in a floodplain, comes from a county-wide property levy tax of 10 cents per $1,000 assessed value, and provides a number of flood protection programs.

Lambert wants to cut $15 million of the $35 million flood control budget, and said that cutting a little from the flood control district funding would save the program from being eliminated entirely.

“The flood district is very important to this area,” she said. Also important to the area is the condition of rural roads, which will also suffer under Lambert’s plan, which would take $9.25 million from the $80 million road budget.

Lambert also believes savings can be found be eliminating most of the $18.5 million parks expansion budget, which does not pay for parks operation and maintenance, but provides extra funding to the Woodland Park Zoo, paves current gravel trails, and funds the purchase of open space and new park land.

The third term councilor understands that many of the decisions facing the county’s policy makers are choices between two equally unacceptable options. If it isn’t roads, its going to be flood precautions. If it isn’t flood precautions, it’s going to be mental health programs, parks, or police officers. There are no easy targets anymore.

“Kathy did not want to cut the flood district so much. But the choices are not great and she felt that criminal justice has to be the top priority,” Lambert’s Chief of Staff Jeff McMorris wrote in an e-mail to The Reporter on Tuesday.

As it is, the county has already turned its back on the majority of its human services funding obligations. A big part of her message to the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce was that there is no longer any fiscal fat to trim, and that reductions they will have to make this year can only come from things that were once considered essential services.

“Right now, we’re just putting on band-aids and shoving problems into the future,” she said. “The infrastructure report on the condition of our rural roads is absolutely frightening. For example, the work plan calls for culverts to be cleaned every 10 years. Now, we are on a 54 year cycle.”

Lambert claims the county has cut its $630 million general fund budget by $150 million over the past two years.

However an analysis of the numbers shows a reduction of only $32 million – from $654,068 million in 2008 to $622,586 million in 2010. The $150 million figure used by politicians like Lambert to illustrate budget shrinkage is derived from estimating how much it would have cost to continue providing services at the 2008 level.

Lambert said the county’s reduction of its own budget is a fact that seems to be lost on residents who believe the county should tightening their own belts.

“Unfortunately, that seems to be the best kept secret in town,” she said.

Lambert said although she didn’t have too much trouble finding places to save the first $100 million, after that the decision were much harder.

“I’m just not comfortable (with cutting) anymore. We’re down to the bone,” she said, adding that the positive functions of government were being undermined by financial restraints. “I believe that government can do good things for people.”

She said improvements to the county’s treatment of people with drug and mental illness issues who enter the jail system had improved markedly in the past few years, and it would be a shame to roll back those programs.

“But some of those things will have to be cut,” she said.

City of Issaquah councilmembers Eileen Barber and Fred Butler, Chamber of Commerce CEO Matt Bott, and representatives from Congressman Dave Reichert’s office were in the audience on Tuesday morning.

Following the meeting Barber told The Reporter she appreciated the hard decisions that Lambert was willing to make for her constituents, and believed that a reduction in flood control funding was something the city could live with.

“It’s not a big amount of money if you look at the bigger issue of where the dollars go,” she said.

The flood control district workplan has slated $775,000 over the next six years for bank stabilization and mitigation work on Issaquah Creek.

Barber said that although the City of Issaquah had its own police force, and processed many of its own offenders, the economic health of the county was still critically important, adding that the county was still responsible for key pieces of infrastructure that affect the lives of locals residents, such as the Issaquah-Pine Lake Road.

Lambert voiced a familiar sentiment – that Tim Eyman’s widely criticized Initiative 747, which capped property tax increases at one percent a year, had effectively disabled governments from providing essential human and social services. Though the initiative said if governments needed a more than one percent increase they could put it to a public vote, Lambert said “people forgot about that part of the deal.”

“Nobody wanted to be the first government out of the chute to ask for more money. So they just kept cutting. That’s what’s been happening for the last 10 years.”

And it is what will keep happening under Lambert’s own plan.

She said that sweeping changes were needed to the political system itself, such as making the City of Seattle and the rest of King County two separate counties.

“I think Seattle should be its own city and county,” she said. “They could be a great neighbor, as opposed to being a sometimes difficult family member.” Responding to a question from the audience, Lambert said she believed King County without Seattle would still be financially viable.

Barber agreed that it was an idea that was worth exploring.

“I’m not sure what hoops and legal issues we would have to jump though,” she said. “But it is always an issue when Seattle drives what is happening out here. Often we have to fight very hard to express the importance and value of projects out here. It is an uphill battle.”

Lambert spoke of labor unions with great distaste.

“We have labor laws in this state that are so pro-labor they aren’t even fair,” she said. “I’ve come to realize that anything short of breathing is considered an unfair labor practice.”

She said that freezing Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) increases would save the county $32 million this year, but that county employees unions had been unwilling to negotiate. If the county can’t bring down how much each employee is paid, Lambert said the only other option is to have less employees.

“Last year we laid off 300 employees,” she said. “This year it will be the same amount, or more. The pink slips will be flying in the next couple of months.”

Listening to all the negative talk about unions on Tuesday morning was Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR) Deputy Chief of Operations Jeff Griffin, whose firefighters agreed to forgo promised salary increases earlier this year to help reduce the cost of EFR for partner cities.

“It can be done,” he said.